The restaurant business is back big in Hartford — and in West Hartford, and Glastonbury, and across Connecticut.
During 2013, businesses that provided food and drink in Hartford registered more than $253 million in sales, according to the state Department of Revenue Services. That's a 29.3 percent increase from 2009 and $16 million more than Stamford, which had led the state since 2011.
“The overall mood in general is more positive about the economy,” said Dan Keller, president of Dish Restaurant Group. “We’re seeing our sales continue to increase … Consumer confidence is definitely stronger than it was four years ago.”
Consumer confidence pairs well with dining out — restaurant spending has been up across the state since 2009.
In terms of restaurant sales, New Haven came in third, with about $195.4 million. West Hartford, known locally as a foodie's Mecca, registered $177.7 million in sales in 2013, a 40.8 percent increase from 2009. Groups with restaurants in many towns may report all sales in one location, according to the tax department.
The overall increase in sales after 2009 may reflect economic recovery after two disastrous years at the height of the recession, said Nicole Griffin, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
“We’ve heard [restaurant owners] say 2008, 2009 were the worst years since the early 1980s,” she said. “2006, 2007 were very good years.”
An uptick in sales may also be due in part to rising expenses across the board — everything from beef and dairy to fuel, labor and unemployment costs.
“All of these have increased, so restaurants have had to increase prices,” Griffin said. “You’re paying more for a cheeseburger than you were 5 years ago.”
Speaking of burgers, the casual and affordable Max Burger restaurants in West Hartford and Longmeadow, Mass., “are having a phenomenal year,” said Scott Smith, chief operating officer of the Max Restaurant Group.
Smith said that while sales at the group’s city restaurants Trumbull Kitchen and Max Downtown are “very respectable,” they have been “a little flat.” But 2013 was a “much better year for us than 2012.”
“In downtown Hartford, our business is dependent on weekdays — we’re so much more business than social,” he said, noting that both Trumbull Kitchen and Max Downtown see strong lunch sales and weekday business entertaining. Weekend traffic is boosted by sporting events, concerts and theater performances at city venues.
By comparison, Smith said, the restaurant group’s suburban eateries in West Hartford, Glastonbury and Avon have seen more consistency and growth.
Alternately, Keller said he’s seen positive signs of growth in the city. Based on the success of Dish — which he and business partner Bill Carbone opened on Main Street in 2007 — and new development downtown, he and Carbone decided to open Sorella in late 2013.
Hartford’s restaurant scene has seen a particular boom with the Front Street development in recent months. The Capital Grille, a high-end steakhouse, came to the city in September 2013, followed by a flood of 2014 debuts: Ted’s Montana Grill in May, then Nixs and Infinity Hall & Bistro in August. Bear’s Smokehouse also opened in late July on nearby Arch Street.
“With the economy getting better, we’ve seen an increase in people going back to the theaters,” Keller said.
Sales have also increased at the partners’ casual Canton restaurant, Dish n’ Dat, which opened in 2009, he said.
“For a while, it was a lot of up and a lot of down. It seems like it’s on an upswing right now, and I continue to see an upswing. There’s a lot of positive stuff going on,” Keller said. “That’s the reason we opened Sorella. If Hartford wasn’t going in the right direction, I wouldn’t invest that kind of money into it.”
Smith, at the Max Restaurant Group, said an improving economy may explain an overall boost in restaurant sales across the state, “you can’t really see that the economy is rebounding — I think it’s been a slow recovery,” he said. “Someone who was visiting us once a month is maybe coming every three weeks now. Some increased frequency in dining has been helping us.”
“We’re hearing good things from restaurants,” Griffin said. The association just marked its sixth year of Connecticut Restaurant Week, a promotion of special fixed-price menus that started in 2008 in response to slow sales at member restaurants. “We’re continuing to do it because people enjoy it. Many of our members had packed houses in the middle of the week.”
The Department of Revenue Services classifies restaurants among a broad group of “food services and drinking places,” which “prepare meals, snacks, and beverages to customer order for immediate on-premises and off-premises consumption. There is a wide range of establishments in these industries. Some provide food and drink only; while others provide various combinations of seating space, waiter/waitress services and incidental amenities, such as limited entertainment. … The industry groups are special food services, such as food service contractors, caterers, and mobile food services; drinking places; and restaurants and other eating places,” according to its website.
The department notes that “retailers with more than one establishment usually report all of their sales and use taxes from their primary location; therefore the amounts for various towns may not reflect actual business activity.”Copyright © 2018, CT Now